Meet NYC’s Most Bonkers Walkers
Jessi Highet and Mike Varley walked the city streets 26 miles a day for 52 weeks
Welcome to #Issue 22 of CAFÉ ANNE!
I typically include several shorter items in each newsletter, but this week’s subject proved so delightful I had to devote an entire issue. We can all live vicariously through Jessi Highet and Mike Varley, a bonkers couple that spent an entire year taking 26-mile daily walks through the streets of New York City simply because it was there.
Next week I’ll be back to the usual format featuring a fresh update on my doorman’s rubber band ball and some very weird trash heaps.
Meet NYC’s Most Bonkers Walkers
Who offers the best bagel in New York City? Who cares!
That was my first reaction when a CAFÉ ANNE reader sent a link to Everything is Everything, a new site ranking more than 200 bagel shops around town. I’m an indiscriminate eater and as far as I’m concerned, EVERY bagel is the best bagel.
But a closer inspection got me intrigued. Whoever was behind the site—and this was clearly a lone individual’s labor of love—had sampled and rated an “everything” bagel with scallion cream cheese at dozens of shops in all five boroughs, scoring each sandwich in three categories before mapping their characteristics on a series of matrix graphs.
The level of detail and methodological rigor was mind-blowing. I had to know: What kind of obsessive maniac would do this for fun? More important: who has that much free time?
I sent an email and was delighted to learn that there is not one, but two maniacs behind the site: the husband-and-wife team of Jessi Highet and Mike Varley, artists who live in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
And the bagel project, it turns out, was just an offshoot of a larger and even more breathtakingly absurd endeavor which had them walking 26.2 miles a day, five days week, for 13 months through the streets of New York City, cataloguing everything from bagel shops and vanity license plates to lost pet signs. That’s 7,024 miles, 13,954,735 steps and 506,000 calories burned.
For what purpose?
Ms. Highet says she and her then-fiancee spent 18 months soul-searching and developing the project prior to its launch. “We’re both planners. We wanted to know what it was that we were doing,” she says. “But I still don’t know if we know fully what it was.”
Let’s start with the bagel part of the journey, the most tangible aspect of their odyssey.
Mr. Varley says the idea of visiting and scoring a bagel shop on every walk arrived early on, as way to add purpose and structure to the project. “And I realized I was going to be hungry a lot,” he says.
They chose to focus on everything bagels with scallion cream cheese because the combo allowed them to observe how much initiative and care the shop put into its product. “It gave stores an opportunity to show me what they were capable of,” he says.
The price of a bagel with cream cheese across the five boroughs ranged from $1.75 to $6, with the average hovering around $3.75, says Mr. Varley, who painstakingly tracked every aspect of the journey on a series of spread sheets.
And there is absolutely no correlation, the two agree, between bagel price and quality.
I was most interested in their criteria for rating the shops themselves. “The ideal bagel store possesses a combination of second-nature intangibles and intimate familiarity with services offered,” Mr. Varley wrote on the website.
He plotted every location on a contemporary/classic vs. focused-service/variety-of-service matrix.
But he clearly has a soft spot for old-school joints where, as he puts it, “The bagels are boiled into the walls.”
“Typically, you'll have yellowed, foam tiling in the ceiling, you know, kind of irregularly placed, and the signage has been taped up and it’s like, ‘We now have jalapeño cream cheese!’ and it’s from like, 1998,” he says.
They also took note of the service.
“Sometimes you can be surly in a bad way. And sometimes you can be surly in the most entertaining, engaging, charismatic way,” says Mr. Varley. “Russ and Daughters is a rare exception to everything I just said, because it is as classic as classic gets, yet it is pristine. And everybody’s in white coats, but if you order poorly, they will let you know, like, ‘Get your shit together!’”
“They’re surly in a bad way that makes it a good way,” says Ms. Highet. “Like, they’re so bad that it’s okay.”
I still haven’t gotten to the best part, or maybe this is the worst part: Mr. Varley took high-resolution photos of each bagel, which he is now offering as collectible NFTs priced at 0.1 ETH (that’s 1/10 of an Ethereum cryptocurrency coin, roughly $350).
He’s already sold 102 of these NFTS, pocketing about $25,000, which covered the majority of their project expenses.
I considered this for a moment.
“On a scale of one to ten, how absurd is this?” I asked.
“I mean, how absurd is life?” said Mr. Varley. “I would say it’s like a ten. But like, everything is a ten.”
Ms. Highet and Mr. Varley, who are in their 30s, both moved to New York in 2008. Ms. Highet, who grew up in Allentown, PA and studied at Parsons, quickly scrapped her original plan to work in fashion design. “People were a little bit too pretentious and mean,” she says of the industry. After school, she ran a weaving business, worked freelance in theater costume departments and now runs a fabric-dyeing studio, employing a crew of artisans.
Mr. Varley grew up in Huntington, Long Island, went to school upstate at SUNY Geneseo and worked as a writer and filmmaker before managing production for a video game company.
The two met at a potluck dinner party in 2014. He was looking for a roommate and she suggested he post an ad on a chat-based list-serve she knew of. When he did, she sent him texts pretending to be a crazed prospective roommate, peppering him with questions about the type of wood in his kitchen cabinets and the ply count of his carpets. “I was just like, bored at work,” she recalls.
Their creative and romantic partnership launched soon after, when they collaborated on a series of sketch comedy videos and devised a brand name, Highley Varlet, that combines their surnames.
They wear outfits sporting the logo. You can buy the ski cap and other accessories online.
Last June, on the final day of their year-long odyssey, they walked 26 miles to the Salt Marsh in Marine Park, Brooklyn where they got married in a ceremony with friends and family. The catered reception featured bagels and cream cheese.
The NYC walking project itself was inspired by a series of three vacation walks they took over the course of three summers, one from San Diego to LA, one the length of Vermont and one from the Pacific Ocean to Olympia, Washington.
“Those three trips got us to the point where we said, “Let’s do it for free, here!’” says Ms. Highet.
It took 18 months to plan the routes in advance on Google Maps. Some covered particular neighborhoods: Week One covered parts of North Brooklyn including Bushwick, Greenpoint and Red Hook, for instance, while Week 44 covered Pelham Park and City Island in the Bronx.
Other weeks had themes: Week 38, “Movie Locations: Royal Tenenbaums” hopped around Manhattan visiting scenes from the 2001 Wes Anderson Comedy. Week 50, “The Stadium Tour” included Citi Field in Queens and Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden. To cut commute times, they stayed in Airbnbs while touring the Bronx, and at Ganas Community, a commune, while touring Staten Island.
Rather than take a different route each day, they walked each 26-mile route five times in a row. “The first day, you’re looking at the map so you don’t even know where you are,” says Ms. Highet. “The last day you notice, ‘Oh this man sitting on his stoop has been here all five days. That’s funny. He must be out here all day, every day’ …It’s like eating the full bagel as opposed to just taking one bite.”
On a typical day, they started at 9:30 am and finished around 8 pm, taking fewer breaks as they acclimated to the conditions. Towards the end, they sometimes walked the entire 26 miles without stopping.
They walked through summer heat, pouring rain, two tropical storms and the Great Blizzard of 2020, which brought two feet of snow and white-out conditions.
“I cried like five times that day. You couldn't see, it was like blowing in your face, it was crazy,” says Ms. Highet. “But now I’m glad we did it. When you push yourself to the limit, you feel very powerful afterwards.”
“It was the most mood-balancing thing I’ve ever done in my life,” adds Mr. Varley of the walks. “To be able to physically engage your body all day keeps your mood at a level that is normal. And it’s wonderful.”
How did they survive financially? Mr. Varley saved a lot while working at the video game company and had a little nest egg to draw on. Ms. Highet actually accompanied Mr. Varley just three of the five days a week, allowing four days a week to keep her dye studio running. “I also have a small team of people that work for me and I was able to call, text, Facetime, etc., while I was walking,” she says.
Having toured the entire city, they’ve compiled lists of the best places to live. Ms. Highly likes Middle Village and Rego Park in Queens, with their Tudor-inspired row houses, and areas near the city’s great parks, like Upper Manhattan’s Inwood. Mr. Varley is a big fan of Ditmas Park in Brooklyn, with its mammoth, Victorian homes and shady green boulevards.
Ms. Highet is now working on a series of walking tour booklets, of course, while Mr. Varley is planning to release additional NFT lines documenting the walks. They’ve also produced a podcast and a YouTube channel based on their adventures.
In a way, they are like pioneers who journeyed to another planet and came back with all sorts of findings and stories to share, only the territory they explored was their own backyard.
I asked how their adventure made them feel about New York City and its future.
“Absolutely optimistic,” says Mr. Varley. “In the pandemic, there were a lot of articles about, ‘Why New York is Going Down,’ or, ‘Why I'm Leaving.’ We’d be talking about it because we had nothing to do but talk, you know, about how absurd that is. New York has the low points baked in as value. Because it's constantly telling its own story. So even the parts that are shitty, when it comes back, then everybody's like, ‘Yeah, well, I was here when it was shitty. Do you remember that?’ And that's when all the art is made, that's when all the interesting things are made. So it's literally—it's indestructible. Even the worst times become the best times later.”
“We're not a city of wimps,” adds Ms. Highet. “Anybody that comes to New York is like, ‘It's expensive, it's crowded, it's dirty, you live in a tiny apartment, it's really hard.’ But if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. This city has never sold itself as being like an easy place to be. So anytime someone was like, ‘Oh, the city is dead, it can't handle a pandemic, it can't handle crime,’ it’s like, “We have handled so much more than that already!”
“And then just being out in it,” she continued, “Reading those articles, and then realizing, ‘Did that person that wrote that even walk outside for a moment?’ We're engaging with people, everything's great, we're going to the neighborhoods where they’re like, ‘Don’t go there! Crime is crazy!’ And we’re going there at four in the mornings sometimes, to beat the heat, or at 10 pm. And it’s fine. Everything’s fine! Just being out in it for real and not letting what other people were experiencing get in our way—we felt good about it. All the people we met and engaged with—I guess the optimism for me comes from engaging with the world around me in this new way, and really being open to whatever comes. That lends itself to being optimistic because it’s clear, yes, we're just going to keep moving forward.”
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